Are Your Canaries Safe?

Photograph of Larry Johnson, Professional Speaker, Author, and Corporate Culture Expert

Most of us are familiar with the role of canaries in coal mines of the past. The miners kept them in cages to warn of lethal gas buildups before the gas poisoned the miners or exploded. If the gas level got too high, the canary would die, telling the miners it was time to exit – pronto. Thankfully, modern mines use electronic sensing devices to serve the same purpose.

O In September 2011, the U.S. District Court in Miami, Florida sentenced American Therapeutic Corporation – (ATC), the owner of a mental health care company, to 50 years in prison for orchestrating a fraudulent $205 million Medicare scheme involving fictitious medical services.

O Recently, British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay $3 billion in fines for promoting their best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and for failing to report questionable safety data about one of their top diabetes drugs.

O In April, ATK Launch Systems a military contractor agreed to a $37 million settlement for selling “dangerous and defective” flares to the military.
O Earlier this year, Oracle agreed to pay $199.5 million after being accused of overbilling the government for software.

The list of fraudulent abuses against taxpayers goes on and on. It is a sad commentary on human nature that these perpetrators are bright enough to pull off these thefts yet choose to cheat the system rather than play by the rules. Ironically, none of these crimes was a one-time event. They all took place over months and even years. During that time, there must have been “honest” and “innocent” people working within these organizations who must have known of the wrongdoing but did nothing about it. Someone in accounting maybe, or sales, or service delivery who noticed that something wasn’t right? Shouldn’t someone have questioned what they saw.

Of course they should have, but unfortunately, no one did. The frauds continued, unimpeded, until CMS (the organization that oversees Medicare), or the SEC, or DOD, or some other policing organization got wind of the fraud and broke it up. By then, many millions of dollars were lost and the public’s trust was damaged.

You may be thinking that I am awfully naive to suggest that people not directly involved in the frauds would be willing to risk their jobs to right wrongs they see at work. And you would be right. I am being naïve. As an old Turkish aphorism says, “He who tells the truth should have one foot in the stirrup.”

So anyone who wants to keep their job and any chance of future promotions will be unlikely to play the canary and raise the alarm. That is, unless they work in a company where speaking out and whistleblowing is encouraged. A company that has a well published and practiced doctrine to protect whistleblowers and those who have the temerity to speak up.

SIG is one such company. A leading distributor of specialist building products in Europe, SIG posts a specific list of dos and don’ts on its website regarding ethical behavior and whistleblowing.

The policy defines whistleblowing, the situations which call for it, and the procedures to follow if an employee sees activity that they think merit its implementation. Most importantly, the policy makes it clear that an employee’s safety and job security should not be threatened if they speak up when they see wrong doing.

It reads:
“SIG will not tolerate harassment or victimization of a genuine whistle blower (including informal pressures) and will treat such conduct as gross misconduct, which if proven, may result in dismissal.”
Of course, such a policy is useless if it’s done just for show. Unless top management of an organization is committed to applying the whistleblower policy swiftly and fairly, acts of fraud and deception will continue to occur because the innocent bystander employees are not going to put themselves at risk without a real safety net.
Question: Does your organization have in place a clearly described and published platform of integrity regarding ethical behavior and how whistle blowers are to be treated? It’s such a policy and, more importantly, a practice that nourishes your canaries and keeps the danger of unethical and illegal behavior from growing to lethal and explosive levels.

The Department of Health and Human Services and The Department of Justice Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2011;

KATIE THOMAS and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT, “Glaxo Agrees to Pay $3 Billion in Fraud Settlement,” New York Times, July 2, 2012,

CIG Website,